Mercy Housing will bring "Mercy Othello Plaza Apartments" 108 units of 1, 2 and 3 bedrooms. Over 2000 people showed up for a lottery drawing, sadly only 104 peoples names could be picked. Underconstruction on Martin Luther King Way in South Seattle, WA

Affordable housing near transit is win-win for both housing and transit. If we build enough of it, not only will residents of this housing have lower rents, but the housing market as a whole will stabilize and improve. Meanwhile, transit riders will benefit from the positive feedback of more riders leading to more service and more support for transit improvements.

The Housing for All Coalition (including Housing Now) is re-launching our campaign for a tax on big business that would raise $150 million a year to build thousands of affordable homes. This tax would go a long way towards funding the affordable housing we need and reinforcing Seattle’s transit oriented future. We hope you’ll join us tonight at 6pm at the Seattle Labor Temple 2800 1st Ave, Seattle, Washington 98121. For more info and to RSVP, check out the event page.

Additionally, Housing Now is starting a new effort to reform Seattle’s comprehensive plan. We’re looking at moving from an “urban village strategy” that confines housing, to a “welcoming communities strategy” that supports and promotes abundant housing. We’re having a general interest meeting on Feb 18th, and we hope to see you there!

We need your support for both of these efforts, see below for more information on why both are important and how you can get involved!

A moral crisis, a practical opportunity

There is no doubt that Seattle faces a profound moral crisis. The city has seen rent increase by over 13 percent last year. Homelessness has risen at the same time: last year over 8,500 people were homeless.

Addressing this moral crisis requires a profound change in how we do housing. The depth of the crisis requires we rethink many things, particularly zoning and taxation. This crisis is also an opportunity for reform in these areas so we can prevent the next crisis.

We need zoning reform so as to allow more housing in the city, with lower costs. Zoning rules that applied when Seattle was a sleepy fishing town, or losing population, simply no longer make sense. There’s no way we can keep constraining multi-family housing to a small portion of the city’s total area and expect to make Seattle affordable. At the same time, we need revenue reform so we can make more of this housing affordable on day 1.

We need more revenue for affordable housing, because new housing is expensive and we live in a society with deep inequality. For many people, wages simply aren’t enough to afford rents. Our social safety net, already frayed and full of holes before Trump, is now under constant attack.

More revenue and zoning reform are two great tastes that go great together. Zoning reform allows more housing of all different kinds, while revenue allows us to build and preserve housing that is guaranteed to be affordable, right now. It also allows us to own the housing on a non-profit basis, thereby ensuring low prices in the long run.

The Vienna Inspiration

Seattle has a long history of building quality affordable housing. Yet we would be remiss not to mention one of the heavyweights in building publicly financed affordable housing: Vienna.

Over 40% of Vienna’s housing is publicly owned or controlled. This housing is high quality, available to people with a range of incomes, and incorporates a range of features, from park space to childcare and beyond. Rents in Vienna overall are stable and affordable, despite the city being internationally renowned for its livability.

Vienna started building its social housing using a combination of a local “luxury tax” similar to our sales tax, and  a Federal block grant. One thing Vienna did not do is attempt to preserve large tracts of low intensity development. They also started out with a high tax on private development, which had the predictable effect of cratering private home creation. Later, after the Second World War they stopped doing this. Today Vienna has new public and private development going on simultaneously.

There is no pure “Vienna model” which we can copy and apply uncritically. Yet we can look to them for inspiration. Vienna raised taxes, sought outside funds, bought land, and built attractive multi-family housing. It’s really not much more complicated than that. Yet at every stage they faced opposition, as will we.

Powerful Interests

The Homes tax faces opposition from lobbyists for big business. Many of these businesses are quite profitable and will be able to absorb a tax. Others will need to increase prices slightly, which will be offset by more money in the local economy and workers with more disposable income. We can expect the same arguments as those made against Seattle’s minimum wage increases. Yet despite all of the predictions of the sky falling, since the minimum wage increase employment in Seattle has been going strong.

Meanwhile, if we take the long view, more affordable homes will benefit the overall economy, including big businesses. The longer Seattle’s housing crisis goes on, the harder it will be for businesses to ignore the plight of their workers in terms of high rents, crowding, and long commutes. Eventually something has to give. Better that it be investment in housing than some other, less productive responses.

The Homes tax is not perfect, but given the range of options before us, it may be our best option. We must continue to explore paths to more progressive revenue sources. Seattle’s income tax legislation led to a lawsuit, and now Seattle is appealing the lower court’s ruling. We can’t be sure of the outcome of this or how long it will take. Nor can we count on the Federal government coming around on housing, not for many years at least.

You can support this effort by coming to the January 31st re-launch meeting. You can also write your council members and tell them that you support this measure. See here for email addresses and phone numbers.

Also don’t forget to join Housing Now for our comprehensive plan update general interest meeting on 3/11 at 2pm. Seattle’s housing future requires a comp plan that supports affordable housing and making our communities welcoming to all!

60 Replies to “Housing For All: A Win for Transit”

  1. When the HOMES tax was floated last year, it was a $25 million tax levied at $100 per full time equivalent job. After somewhat widening the exemptions for small business, it was reset at $125 per job.

    To raise $150 million per year, it would have to be near $800 per job. An $800 tax on jobs in Seattle is obviously a non-starter. It can’t be handwaved with comments about some businesses being quite profitable. Even at firms with mostly professional employees, an $800 expense per employee would get HR questioning their location decisions. For firms with more hourly wage workers, it’s a very large cost. Of course they’ll take a hard look at whether they need so many employees in the city.

    1. Yeah, that’s way too much. I thought McGinn’s idea for a $100 head tax was fine…

      In general, I feel like there are way too many groups proposing taxes for different social justice causes right now. I think people saw Seattle pass a number of transit initiatives and they thought it was open season for whatever their pet project is…

      I’ll vote for taxes if they are reasonable in scope and funding something I think is absolutely crucial. Housing is pretty crucial, but the $800 per person, if that’s true, is way too big of an ask.

    2. The “open season” is because so many things have been neglected for the past few decades that a huge backlog has built up. What the vote showed is that is that people are a little more willing to raise taxes and think these problems are a little more urgent than was previously believed. How long that trend might continue or how deeply people are willing is unknown. There are at least a dozen unmet needs, some of which have proposals coming and some of which don’t. Unfortunately our piecemeal approach means that the first few of them to get to the ballot will be approved, regardless of whether the best ones, and possibly adversely affecting other ones. It’s similar to the transit/bike/ped issues, where an approved transit plan ends up stomping on a bike plan or vice-versa, just based on which one gets articulated and approved first. But that’s better than not doing anything at all as we did for most of the 80s, 90s, and early 00s’.

  2. Excellent piece, Alex!

    One comment – the high tax was on home size, not new home development. The federal rent control (imposed by conservative capitalists to reduce labor costs and compete with neighboring countries) is what killed development.

    But what Vienna is doing today offers an excellent model of how to build high quality, mixed income social housing at scale.

    1. But Germany has statewide rent control in all its states, and its housing availability is similar to Vienna. The problem with the “bad” kind of rent control in San Francisco and New York was specific policies that encouraged neglect and evictions, and the fact that it only applies to the buildings existing at the time. So three decades later as new non-rent-controlled buildings are going up, the percentage of people with controlled units is steadily decreasing, to the point that only a few long-term renters benefit, and newcomers and the newly poor are shut out. But Germany has rent control across the entire state, so you can’t just build a new building or go outside the main city’s limits to escape it. But it’s loose enough that developers and owners can get a steady modest profit. They just can’t make a windfall killing. So developers are still building, and that means reasonably-priced apartments are available throughout the country. It also means that middle-class people are more willing to rent rather than buy, because they know they won’t get priced out of the city if they don’t. That also means they don’t have to carry mortgage debt, which gives them more spending money and a better financial cushion in case they need it in the next ten or twenty yeas.

      1. i’m familiar w/ housing policy and rent control in germany, and the differences in tenure (indefinite) there and in austria, v. the US.

        i’m merely pointing out that what killed development was the rent control act of 1922 that reverted rents to half of what they were in 1914 that, per ever blau’s book on red vienna, with the devaluing of the krone, reduced rental values to less than 1% of what they were. it wasn’t the wohnbausteuer – which was a somewhat progressive tax pegged to housing unit size – which that was mainly used to fund social housing before austria had the ability to utilize eminent domain.

      2. I wasn’t questioning your knowledge. I was just saying that this is an additional model that exists and is worth considering. I didn’t mention that Germany has urban-focused land-use policies too, which also contributes to its success.

        One experience stands out for me. I stayed with a friend in Ratingen, a suburb of Duesseldorf, then accessible by S-Bahn+bus or a one-seat bus (the same bus route). The two S-Bahn lines stop west and east of the city so you have to take a bus to the city center or the western neighborhood where I was staying. My bus stop was between two car dealerships on either side of the street. I couldn’t believe it, but it made it easy to recognize the bus stop. The neighborhood was all 1950s modern architecture. That depressed me at first, until I realized that the area had been leveled in the war and had to be completely rebuilt, so of course it was built in the 1950s with 1950s styles. But Germany’s postwar rebuild put a high priority on walkable neighborhoods, unbquidous transit, and workplaces that workers could get to via transit. That underlies its entire land use, transit planning, and road planning. Even to the point that the main train station is the center of town, and often has an extended “supermarket” inside for travelers and townspeople. And I don’t remember seeing even one single-family house in Ratingen, Duesseldorf, or Cologne. That reminded me of greater Moscow and St Petersburg, which also don’t have single-family houses. Although if you go out to more small-town parts of Germany, there are houses there.

        Anyway, I had a bit of a trek getting from Ratingen to the center of Duesseldorf. There were light rails (U-Stadtbahn) in Duesseldorf and Essen, and streetcars in Cologne, and the S-Bahn in all three, but you had to take a half-hourly bus to the center of Ratingen or my western neighborhood. But now on Google Maps there’s a light rail from Duesseldorf to the center of Ratingen and on to Essen. So I could take that now, and I assume it’s frequent.

      3. The Babelsburg section of Potsdam was that way, only more so. Where I stayed it was a 10 minute walk to pretty much anything, including a Berlin S-bahn station, 3 banks, at least two bakeries (coffee shops in the morning), a streetcar / light rail / tram station, and a semi-wild park something like Discovery Park.

        There were 0 single family homes, and as part of former eastern block Germany may have never had any for several decades or more. It also had 0 vast surface parking lots.

        There were lots of young families with strollers and children though. Almost every time I got on any of the tram lines there were at least 3 strollers on the 100% low floor cars.

        So, they don’t seem to think single family houses with a yard and all that is required to raise a family.

  3. “The Homes tax faces opposition from lobbyists for big business. Many of these businesses are quite profitable and will be able to absorb a tax. Others will need to increase prices slightly, which will be offset by more money in the local economy and workers with more disposable income. ” –or the firms will move to less transit accessible suburbs or even other MSAs… A city is a very small geography in which to achieve redistribution of income. A property tax on the other hand is largely born by the landowners.

  4. The picture really saddens me. Is six stories all that can be built right next to a light rail station?

    1. Six stories has been about all you can do with wood-frame construction, above which costs rise steeply. The emerging technology of Cross-Laminated Timber should help make taller buildings cheaper to construct; that, combined with zoning changes and sources of funding (public or private) could help address the affordable housing crisis.

      Seattle’s “missing middle” deserves to be addressed, but for a given increase in population, it’s more efficient from a TOD perspective to concentrate even more development near high capacity transit stations than it is to go from low to medium-low density in less-accessible areas. To the extent cost per square foot is the reason 6 story buildings are going up in prime locations where 8, 10 or 12 stories would work even better, new construction techniques will hopefully shift that balance.

      And regarding density, is there a good reason the vicinity of Northgate station is not already zoned like the Denny Triangle, like 400 feet? It’s a sea of parking lots at a low elevation with minimal view impacts that will be 14 minutes from Westlake via Link. That’s surely what Vancouver would do (or maybe even Lynnwood!)

      1. That’s Mercy Othello Plaza,

        I think it’s 5 stories of wood frame over a concrete podium (does anyone remember?) which is common and supports commercial / retail spaces at ground level. No underground parking. It’s 65 feet but zoning allowed for 85 feet. It’s hard to imagine that was for reasons other than cost, so this is probably an example of a project that would have been higher density a decade from now.

      2. ” To the extent cost per square foot is the reason 6 story buildings are going up in prime locations where 8, 10 or 12 stories would work even better”

        Six-story buildings are going up because that’s the zoning limit. Where are new buildings going to less than the limit? A few corporate headquarters like the Gates Foundation, but not developer-built housing and office space to be used by other people.

    2. You can do a pretty good job with 3-4 floors, even row houses instead of apartments (Boston’s Back Bay, parts of San Francisco, many European cities). And walkup apartments do tend to be more affordable than those that require an elevator and a parking structure (though there are probably ADA accessible issues to contend with). IMHO Seattle could use a massive dose of 3-4 story rowhouse and walkup apartment housing in the valley, it couldn’t just be *one* building in a sea of single family detached home zoning and NIMBYism. Putting a highrise with a garage in a car oriented single family neighborhood is a great way to 1) add more $1800 “affordable” apartments, and 2) add more cars to the neighborhood–transit station or no transit station. So single family zoning within a half mile of light rail stations and transit centers really does need to go away, but it doesn’t have to be upzoned to the level of the Denny Triangle and SLU.

      1. Right, we don’t need lots of 14-story and 40-story buildings if we have enough 7-story buildings. They can fit a lot of people if they’re given a large enough 2-dimensional area and no excessive setbacks, stunted maximum FARs, or excessive parking requirements. At least a third of the buildings should not require any parking. Brooklyn and Queens are mostly within that size, as are a lot of Manhattan’s housing, even Lower Manhattan. And Chicago’s North Side doesn’t typically go past 10 stories except along the shoreline where the highrise condos go. (Roughly similar to Vancouver’s percentage of highrises at Skytrain stations, although these aren’t at stations but at waterfront parks.)

  5. I want to support your aims but your insistence that we tax “big business” makes it difficult for me. The fact of the matter is that most of Seattle is employed by “big business” (rich and poor) and people don’t want to see their employer move to Redmond or Bellevue or North Carolina or Chicago to avoid taxes.

    Why not achieve these goals by imposing taxes that primarily affect rich individuals? Higher taxes on luxury goods such as luxury cars, jewellery, mansions, boats, waterfront renovations, etc. come to mind.

    > since the minimum wage increase employment in Seattle has been going strong.

    FWIW I supported and still support the minimum wage hike, but I’m not sure there is any data to back this claim up. The only data I’ve seen is which paints a fairly damning picture.

    > Rents in Vienna overall are stable and affordable, despite the city being internationally renowned for its livability.

    TBH it’s a bit pie-in-the-sky to compare Seattle to Vienna. Vienna is a very nice and beautiful city but I don’t think it’s comparable to Seattle. Seattle has a much larger population to draw from in terms of language/culture (330 million vs 10 million) and a much more vibrant and innovative economy.

    IMO Seattle is probably more comparable to London, Barcelona, or Berlin which have their fair share of housing crises as well.

    1. The state limits what kinds of taxes cities can collect. And the state constitution prohibits taxing different people or property unequally within a tax district. So that probably prohibits a rich people’s tax or wealth tax. Our state constitution has some provisions that were intended to be fairer or may have made sense at the time but have perverse impacts now. One is the requirement for equal property taxes. Another is the prohibition against extending public credit to private entities, which hinders some kinds of TOD partnerships. Another is the prohibition on using gas-tax money for anything other than highways, especially not rail, which has been interpreted as excluding commuter rail and regional rail. The reason is that in the 1940s the public was hopping mad at the robber-baron monopoly railroads and didn’t want their gas-tax money to go anywhere near them. But now it has stifled state commuter rail, Cascades expansion, and urban metros, which would reduce pressure on existing freeways and decrease the need to build more freeways.

      Vienna’s solution can scale, as can Germany’s.

      I didn’t read the Evans paper but it’s obvious that there haven’t been mass business closings in Seattle, especially in the fast-food and entry-level area. A few businesses have closed but others have replaced them. And some would have closed anyway. There’s probably a marginal effect where if the city’s economy is just on the edge of a recession, the loss of a few companies could tip it over into increasing unemployment, but Seattle is a long way from that right now. And there’s still the interplay of higher wages creating more demand and healthier citizens, which leads to a need for more employees and lowers overall costs (i.e., the public/private costs of coping with unhealthy citizens in unstable housing/food situations). I don’t know where the exact point is that these two factors cross (losing jobs vs higher wages increasing demand), but the second factor is clearly above zero, and that’s ignored in the anti-minimum-wage rhetoric.

      1. > The state limits what kinds of taxes cities can collect.

        In that case I think the HOMES coalition should focus on changing state law to allow for a state-wide income tax, or at least to allow cities or counties to levy their own income/property taxes.

        I would also love to see the gas tax rule widened to specifically include commuter rail and light rail. This could also be levied at a per-city or county level.

        Levying a per-head jobs tax seems short-sighted and I feel that it degrades support for taking more sustainable measures like reforming the state income tax and/or gas tax.

      2. “I would also love to see the gas tax rule widened to specifically include commuter rail and light rail.”

        The prohibition against public rail services is questioned by some; it would take a constitutional court to get a definitive answer. The state may have to just do it and see what the court says. But that requires convincing the legislature, the majority of who want to keep privileging highways.

  6. It’s frustrating to me that this piece is so cagey about what the HOMES tax actually is. Is Dan correct that it’s an 800 dollar per job per year tax? Why aren’t you upfront about the nature of the tax you’re advocating?

    I don’t know if Dan is correct about the potential negative impact of such a tax, but even if he’s not, it’s worth worrying about the long-term sustainability of a tax on jobs. Even it has few ill-effects now, we shouldn’t be planning long-term with taxes that can’t survive the next recession. The last head tax we had was not politically sustainable during a recession. When jobs suddenly become scarce and decreasing, the political pressure to dispense with a job tax will be immense. Why do you think it will be different the next time around?

    1. The last “head tax” we had was neither a “head tax” nor that large. A real head tax is imposed on all citizens, tends to result in mass protest, and doesn’t last very long because of people power.

      The politics of why the employee tax went away involved election season and the Chamber’s hatred of Mike McGinn. Figuratively, it got buried under the viaduct.

      It was also a poor ratio for revenue raised to clerical burden for those so taxed.

      It did, however, exempt counting some employees who commuted by alternative modes.

      The idea was fine. The timing worked against it. The paltry revenue it raised meant hardly anybody staffed the ramparts when it was on the chopping block.

      1. In other words, the Chamber misnomered the employee tax as a “head tax” as a dog whistle. The misnomer stuck, to the shame of all the press who let it stick.

    2. Alex is more explicit in the Urbanist this morning that he is indeed referring to an employee hours tax, as I had assumed. And it must be in the ballpark of the rate I described – the rate needs to be more than six times the $125 last considered by the Council in order to raise six times the revenue.

      As far left as Seattle Council politics have moved, it’s hard to believe they’ll take seriously a tax on jobs that advocates dare not even describe in clear language.

    3. I can’t comment on the tolerable size of a head tax (I’m not a numbers person), but even if it gets repealed in a recession, it will have done some good before that. Recessions mean high unemployment and low revenue from many factors One factor can’t control or predict the size or impact of the recession; it will be a rounding error. And if it gets repealed in a recession, we can reinstate it afterward. Of course ideally revenue streams should not be dependent on the boom-and-bust cycles of the economy, the way Metro’s sales tax is notoriously volatile but property tax or MVET wouldn’t be. But we can only get so many stable taxes and revenue level before we have to resort to unstable volatile taxes, both because of state restrictions and probably because of the underlying economics.

  7. Why are “lobbyists” invoked as a powerful interest, in addition to the big businesses some of them work for? Some lobbyists work for social justice groups.

    I hope to see more details on these proposals, and less blowing of dog whistles in a forum like this that is more for digging into the details than rousing the rabble.

    But thanks for engaging us.

  8. As long as it results in something other than floor level retail/commercial blight, I’m in. The concept is old, tired, and panders to businesses over people. Who thought it was a good idea to dedicate an entire floor per building to rampant, unfettered capitalism in the first place?

    1. I don’t know, A. Few guesses, though. Fellow tenants whose own rent would be a lot higher if they moved out. Their customers who don’t wan’t to be forced to shop in stores owned by… name the chain.

      Whose corporate owners are charter members of the rabid-dog-who-chewed-through-its-leash class. And whose customers are its priority victims, excepting only their employees.

      Maybe their rampancy-loving who enjoy the life that small business gives their neighborhood. Or their children they’ll work themselves to death, not the metaphorical but the heart-attack kind.

      So they won’t come out of school to spend their lives enriching the industry that’s let them trade life over their friends’ hardware store for a much nicer neighborhood where they can live under a dirty tarp and over a former storm-drain that’s now a sewer.

      Will cut you some slack for being younger than ten. Because very likely these places went away about thirty years ago with the last labor union. Luckily, I know a completely transit-oriented way to get your question answered. One elevator-ride from the Angle Lake LINK there’s a grocery store run by a Somali family.

      Pay them a visit, and ask for a job. Find out the Somali term for the rampant thing, though the unfettered part will make them roll on the floor in hysterics for another half hour. The half hour you last will at least leave you with some mop and stock-stacking skills that at least they’ll pay you a lot more than they get for being the owners.

      But I’m very serious that your ORCA-share won’t be wasted. They’ll give you a list of relatives who need some extra help, say, for keeping their daughter in college so she can have her advanced math degree before they need her help at home.

      Because another family member is now hiding for his life back home, which is now on a no-entry list here. So get used to the work’s most common on the job injury. You’ll have to start sitting down slowly on a very soft cushion, because your work-day will swiftly deprive you of the one you were born with.

      Mark Dublin

      1. I’m not sure I follow you. I am advocating for floor level residential, resulting in more housing, not less. I don’t think fellow tenants are NIMBYs who want less housing just because they have a unit.

        Also, floor level retail is often taken over by big chains. The PCC in Columbia City is a great example. Mom and pop small businesses aren’t going to be able to afford the rates on these floors. Floor level retail is pandering to big business over residents.

        I work with PoC NPOs in Seattle. They’re not for floor level retail, I assure you. They’re less for it than I am, because they see first hand what it does to communities.

    2. If you can’t walk to businesses then you have to leave the neighborhood to go to them, and that often requires driving. Before WWII there were corner stores and a wide variety of local ground-floor business everywhere, so people didn’t have to leave the neighborhood as much. They disappeared partly because the new larger supermarkets and cars attracted people, and partly because residential-only zoning outlawed them. You can see remnants of them all over Seattle: sometimes there’s still a business in them as in the small cluster in Mt Baker east of the station, or the isolated one-unit or one-block businesses on Bellevue Avenue E and Fuhrman Avenue E. Other times the business-below/owners-above have been converted to single-family houses as in eastern Fremont. Sometimes you can see traces of the business; other times the conversion is so thorough you wouldn’t know unless an old-timer tells you what to look for.

      The result of this is a sea of residential-only blocks, with a longer walk to a neighborhood commercial district. At least Seattle still has neighborhood commercial districts like Mt Baker and NE 65th Street. In the suburbs you may have to drive a mile or two just to get to a 7-11 or supermarket, and anything beyond that is further away.

      The requirement for ground-floor retail is motivated by two things. One, to put businesses back into walking distance from residents, especially the large number of new residents in new multistory buildings. The other is to fulfill a Jane Jacobs vision. She complained about the tyranny of blank walls and nothing at ground level. That created neighborhoods with nothing to walk to, everything beyond walking distance, and the blankness making an unpleasant and unsafe walk. Ground-floor businesses provide “eyes on the street”: both the business owner and employees, and the customers coming and going.That level of normal citizen activity deters crime because somebody is always watching. And businesses get more people walkiing in/walking out all day than residential buildings do.

      There’s an argument that the universal ground-floor retail rule is excessive or that it has failed in certain areas that don’t have enough foot traffic yet. (The Denny Triangle was once cited as a place with failing ground-floor retail. That’s hard to believe now, but on the other hand that perfectly illustrates how foot traffic can come back once Amazon comes to SLU and development spills into the Denny Triangle. Those first-year businesses may have failed, but the buildings are all ready for other businesses to take their place.

      Re expensive retail and chain stores, that’s not the fault of the ground-floor retail rule. It’s the fault of not enough retail spaces to accommodate both chain demand and non-chain demand. Because once chains discover a place, there’s no way to keep them out. Spokane and Tacoma were pretty non-chain in the 1980s, but now the chains have come. Another problem is the specific configuration of the retail spaces. The old storefronts on University Way, Summit Avenue E, and 1st & Virginia are narrow and deep. That allows more businesses to fit into one block, and favors smaller independent businesses because chains find them too small or don’t like the narrow-deep configuration. Chains are also looking for “high visibility” places. One company’s spec said it prefers high visibility (a wide storefront) on one side, and preferably two sides (i.e., a corner location). Wide storefronts mean fewer businesses to walk to, and a longer overall distance to get to everything. But corporations love it because it gives them high visibility and keeps competition away. If there’s only one storefront, two competing coffee shops can’t exist on the same block, and the same for Thai restaurants and clothing stores.

      Developers are building wide storefronts because the space behind is taken up by mandated off-street parking (which may be a third empty of the residents aren’t using it). So get rid of parking minimums and more deep space will be available. Also, large developers backed by Wall Street investors demanding high return are looking for companies with a good credit history, and chains have deep pockets so they have the best credit history. I don’t think that’s the primary reason developers are building wide storefronts, but it’s a secondary reason; i.e., because it attracts large chains. The thing to do is to fix the parking regulations now, and perhaps tweak the zoning rules to encourage narrow storefronts. The bad thing is that that wasn’t done earlier, so Chase Bank got a ridiculously large space at 45th & University Way. And it’ll be hard to convert buildings that were recently built. But that’s all the more reason to change the rules now, before more buildings with wide storefronts are built.

      1. That’s quite alot to swallow. Do you have non-anecdotal evidence that say, 1940 Seattle had more floor level per capita or square foit than we do now?

        The same goes for Seattle crime statistics and floor level retail reducing crime. These are some pretty hefty postulates being tossed around.

        I’d also like to see the data that suggests there is a demand for retail space that justifies floor level retail. I don’t see big or small businesses making that claim.

        The best solution seems to be the one you allude to and discard. We need to end residential only zones. A community does need more than residences, I agree. Floor level retail is only one choice, one that supports T-Mobile stores and Domino’s Pizza chains more than it does mom and pops. In fact, those two stores are present in the pictured Othello complex. The vast majoriry of small businesses were pushed north, south, and west. They didn’t move into Mercy Othello Plaza, by and large.

        The residents I talk to in South Seattle don’t want a new PCC, Donino’s, or T-Mobile store. They’d rather those stores go elsewhere. To demandd we know better than a community, especially a PoC community, what is best for them is beyond hubris. It is an exercise of privilege bordwring on outright racism.

        Blaming things on parking and store front widths seems an obvious canard. That big businesses feel so comfortable that they have the audacity to have and push preferences, sorry, specs, is a sign of how much pandering to big business has gotten out of hand.

      2. No, I don’t have numbers, and I don’t know when the corner stores disappeared. I just know there used to be more of them in what are now residential-only groups of blocks. Seattle’s population was 200,000 then, and there were more corner stores, so therefore there must have been more corner stores per person.

        What did I reject? I support converting residential-only zones to mixed residential/business. Isn’t that the same thing as ground-floor retail? Do you want the businesses on the second floor? Or in only half the buildings? Or in only one building per block? Or all in one building on the block? Or just wherever owners decide to put them? Those are all possible variations that would be better than the status quo.

        Your assertion that ground-floor retail just leads to all chains and displaces all local businesses is obviously false. Broadway, University Way, Summit and Bellevue Avenues, and University Way aren’t all chains: there are a lot of independent local businesses. Some of them are businesses that used to be in the old buildings and are now in nearby new buildings. Lake City is also not all chain, nor is MLK. The only grain of truth in your assertion is that the lowest-budget businesses can’t afford the rents in the new buildings and disappeared or moved to more outlying areas. But that’s the problem in the general increase in real-estate prices, not just the fault of this ground-floor retail policy. And the reason the prices in the new buildings are so high is because we didn’t build them earlier to prepare for the growth, and because they’re taking advantage of artificial scarcity (i.e., that a similar building two blocks away is not allowed so that competition is eliminated). Your position that ground-floor retail leads to leads to chain invasion implies that we should not require ground-floor retail. In that case it won’t be there, and there will be no businesses, either chain or independent. Is that better? In other words, it sounds like a NIMBY bait-and-switch, and even if you don’t intend it that way, it risks causing that de facto effect.

        What I’m most interested in hearing from you is, what do you want if you don’t want residential-only areas or ground-floor chain retail? And how do we get from here to there? You can’t just allow (not require) some business spaces wherever the landowners feel like putting it and hope that will lead to an independent-business utopia. The chains still have deeper pockets and will outbid them no matter where the commercial space is. The only solution is to have enough commercial spaces to saturate the market and give room for non-chain stores to come in. Or have narrow deep storefronts, which large chains are not attracted to. Because you can’t legally shut out chain businesses, equality under the law and all that.

      3. A Joy, can you specify what the alternative proposal is? Given that neighborhoods need retail businesses, which it seems you agree with, where should they go if not on the ground floor of otherwise residential buildings? Seems like the other options are higher floors of mixed buildings (which seems crazy to me) or in their own standalone buildings. And if the answer is in their own standalone buildings, why not build residences atop those buildings (which of course takes us back to square one)?

        I’ve long been disappointed by the businesses that appear on street level in new buildings. I remember joking about how every building opening in the late 90s/early 2000s would have a tanning salon. Now, at least on Capitol Hill, the contemporary equivalent seems to be a boutique gym. If a new building in your neighborhood is opening with a Dominos and a T-Mobile, I can understand why you’d be irritated by that. But I’d like to see policy changes to affect the mix of businesses that open there, rather than just oppose street-level retail. I’m intrigued by the idea of requiring more storefronts per block to appeal more to smaller businesses, but would need to learn more. Another option would be incentives for local-owned or community-owned businesses, excluding franchises.

      4. P.S. By “no retail” I’m making the lazy assumption that developers would not build retail anyway because apartments are more lucrative and less management overhead. That may or may not be true, but I’ve heard it in a couple cases, and to the extent that it is true, it would weaken the movement to reverse the growth of residential-only deserts. Business rd make the neighborhood more lively by bringing more pedestrians, and unique businesses draw people from our of the neighborhood which increases transit ridership and makes it easier to justify frequent transit in the neighbirhoods, which is a win for residents, especially those who don’t want to drive.

      5. Pretty much all of Poetland’s older buildings, ranging from the 1880s to the 1950s, were originally set up this way. Parts of Old Town, downtown Oregon City, the Belmont and Hawthorne corridors, the old Lents and Montavilla areas, etc all had, and to some extend still have today, their old retail core in this type of building.

        However, we also have some of the same issues with the chains: when a new floor level retail building is build, most of the time it gets occupied by a retail chain. I think this is probably the same issue as it is with housing: only a certain amount of it is being built, and so those with money get the prime locations.

        Other than providing enough such spaces that the cost of getting a space in one of these locations comes down due to the other demands already being met, I’m not sure what the solution would be.

        On SE Hawthorne in Portland, the first new building like this got one chain clothing store (American Apparel), but as more of them are being built they are being occupied by local businesses. I can only assume that the chain market for these spaces has finally filled up.

    3. What’s wrong with retail on the first floor? Who wants to live in the first floor of an apartment building for reasons other than not having to take stairs or an elevator? It sure beats the heck out of first-floor parking garages. (Or is concern trolling about first-floor retail really just an attempt to force parking garages?)

      The commercial space doesn’t have to be just unfettered mom-n-pop shops you don’t find within walking distance of Seattle’s unfettered suburgatory. Some host community centers, exercise places, child care, martial arts jodos, and even revolutionary bookstores.

    4. Wow that’s a first, I’ve never heard of someone who doesn’t like ground-floor retail. Have you ever been to Europe? It’s pretty much standard for every building to have ground retail and I think it adds a wonderful character and walkability to neighborhoods.

  9. For guest posts it would be good policy to state who the guest poster is and what org is being represented.

    You can sort of get it from the article, but it really should be stated clearly up front. Otherwise it is hard to tell who has skin in the game and which game is being played.

  10. Singapore does a decent job with HDB flats, which sounds similar to Vienna’s approach and is much better than what we tried with “the projects” in the US. Maybe it’s time for Seattle to move in that direction (though not necessarily to the extent of 80% of residents living in one!). Publicly developed and regulated, but privately owned. Private developers just don’t deliver on affordable housing in a hot housing market.

    1. We can’t go in one step to majority public housing or even as large a scale of public housing as Germany or England, nor should we try. But we should start increasing it gradually until we reach the point that enough workforce housing exists to match the workforce. (“Workforce housing” means housing affordable to teachers, firefighters, nurses, entry-level workers, and the like. It’s where “affordable housing” leaves off, because these people make to much to qualify for so-called affordable housing, which is only for the poor and destitute.)

  11. While the intent is well and good, the structure required is lacking. South Lake Union is the poster-child for this. Density has increased on Dexter south of the ship canal, yet that area is only served by 1 line, #62. Buses are often standing room only, or too full to accept passengers at all during both commute periods. What is worse is because of the decision to give car traffic on Mercer priority, south bound transit is held up for extended periods during the evening commute.
    Wallingford has a similar issue, being really only served by the #44. #62 and #26x do pass through, but that is just a short distance of their routes.
    I also have to point out that very little of the housing being built in SLU or Wallingford could be considered affordable by something other that a Amazon worker with a high 5 figure or better income.

    1. There are definite plans to get Link to SLU, and RapidRide to 45th and Fairview Avenue. It just takes time to build them, and we don’t have unlimited money to expedite them due to state tax restrictions. You’re right that livability requires a wholistic solution with housing, transit, schools, neighborhood-focused businesses, parks, etc.But housing is the biggest problem, and makes the biggest difference in terms of whether the people can live in the neighborhood at all, or even live in Seattle. If you look at people’s total monthly expenses, half or more is housing, and it has risen three or four times as much as anything else, with medical insurance vying for second. Meanwhile a one-zone monthly bus pass has gone from maybe $90 to $99.

    2. Like I said before, these comments leave a better time-stamp than an expensive tattoo. Main reason so many kids spend so much money on, to mark a memorable experience, or honor a family-member. Or something else worth remembering.

      Today’s majority comment marks its wearer’s birthday after the day the labor movement lost its last National Public Radio slot to one of about three hour-long devotions with names like “Planet Money”. Which must dwarf Jupiter.

      Two missing words that of course couldn’t be edited out. Every single one of the sadly unfixables bemoaned here would never have existed at all when our company town, and all its suppliers and their employees, had (please have your children leave the room) a labor union in their lives.

      You want to get people off the street, hire them at wages that’ll let them back into their houses. Including rebuilding and restoring ever piece of concrete and plumbing presently crumbling out from under the marble floors of pent-house offices. Maybe it’s because I really in free enterprise- for things people have a choice about.

      To a lot of socialist shop-keepers thought in the days when their politics held a lot of Eastern Washington… a hand-out free society, meant not only paying people, but giving them the power to negotiate wages that can make taxpayers out of them

      No room in anybody private’s business plan? That’s what we, the people, are supposed to own a government for. To hire the help we need. To bring back streets that will give also give Business some customers, and pavement-requiring suppliers, to Plan for.

      And employees not only well educated, but no motive to steal computers or company secrets to pay off loans. Ask Andrew Carnegie. Hard man for a non-Scot to work for. Or get hired by. Considered inherited wealth child abuse.

      But the libraries he built specifically for working people were college-equivalents in his day. And his parks, college world’s most beautiful campuses. Thrift itself. Fits in your coat pocket.

      Because his Business Plan demanded intensively well-educated workers. With KNOWLEDGE enough not to screw around in any INDUSTRY of his.


  12. Some of the inner neighborhoods of San Francisco have 7 story apartment buildings, mostly built 1906-1929. There isn’t usually a whole street of them, the 7 story buildings might be the tallest in an area of 4-7 story buildings. A mixture of height and building types is OK, it provides a variety of housing possibilities for people. There just needs to be enough housing overall.

  13. Wake up me when City of Puyallup and Sound Transit get together an start operating Sounder connector buses to the newly created South Hill neighborhood with its high density residential zoning, or it forever will remain an island surrounded by minimum wage retail jobs.

  14. I cannot seem to reply to you on the topic thread Mike, or I would.

    The plural of anecdote is not data. I am surprised I have to say that here. Also The Ave, Lake City, and indeed most of the neighborhoods you list were built the way they were long before any floor level retail requirement. Granted, my memory of them only goes back to 1983, but I am pretty sure the floor level retail requirement wasn’t in place then.

    As for my alternative, that’s simple. Some buildings should be entirely residential, others entirely retail. It works quite well in NYC. Heck, there is an entire culture around the entryways to such residential buildings, known as stoops. They’re minor cultural centers and community organizing locations. In fact, Jane Jacobs wrote about the social importance of stoops in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

    Floor level retail has become a local icon of gentrification. It is time we ended such outdated concepts, for the good of all.

    1. If we only could comment with fact-checked statistics we’d never get anywhere, because hardly anyone would be able to say anything.

      Thank you for your comment about separate residential and commercial buildings side by side. Can you say more about why this is better? And dies it really ensure that more independent business rd and less chains are in the neighborhood?

      1. Well first, it permits community gathering places like stoops. No floor level residential, no stoop. Second, it is cheaper to build. Retail and residential have vastly different utility needs, and a mixed use building has to plan for and build utilities for both purposes. Third, it is the method used in many of the densest cities around the world. It also creates community commerce hubs, which can draw larger crowds to smaller businesses. Ladtly off the top of my head it is more customer friendly and amti-automobile. If you need to go to both a grocery store and hardware store with floor level retail, you could be having to backtrack along your route, or have some odd triangular path, which makes the car trip more desirable. With a multimodal retail building, you’ve got both in the same location. One trip to two stores and you’re heading home. Heck, use them as bus transfer points and you’ve gridded/spread out your city’s commute and brought the elderly/disabled right to the only place they need to go.

        Certainly these retail/commercial buildings would have to be spread out, so that any given home would be less than a quarter away from one. It also wouldn’t fly in the NIMBY SFH lands of Seattle. But it is a dead simple idea that invigorates many aspects of a community. Give each one a neighborhood flavor, showing the diverse cultures in our city. The possibilities are massive and varied.

      2. I’m completely unconvinced that physical separate of retail and residential buildings has any effect on community commerce hubs. Bars, clubs, community centers, etc in residential buildings would do just as well. And the idea that putting retail businesses in the same buildings as residences some how hurts walkability? Totally disagree.

        I will grant you, though, that homes with stoops and very little setback from the street is a desirable pattern. Good thing neighborhood can have both!

      3. Does stoop mean a front porch or a stairway to the door or both? I don’t know how much people in NYC still hang out on stoops, but here you hardly ever see anybody in their front yard, front porch, or front courtyard. And on Capitol Hill they’ve all been gated off, even plant-filled open space where there’s no room to stand normally.It’s not a “friendly interface between the residents and passers-by to see each other and engage” like you see in old movies or Sesame Street.

        I would be all for stoops like you describe, with people sitting on them for several hours a day, except I don’t think that would realistically happen. They would remain empty, or people taking smoke breaks and talking about drugs, and women may not feel safe hanging out there. So they would end up being like a suburban-style setback. Some have criticized the stairs leading to the door as unnecessary and space-wasting: the main floor should be lower instead, and the front door right on the sidewalk, or at most with just a tiny setback.

      4. By “space-wasting” I mean something that’s most acute in places like northwest Everett, where a small house sits in the center of a narrow deep lot. You could fit an entire row of houses in the front yards and still have space in front and back of each. And I have not seen anybody use those yards: no kids playing, no adults sitting on a blanket or in chairs. Only a few people maintaining the yard. There’s not even a low hedge between the yard and street and neighbors, and that may be psychologically too open for people, like sitting in a fishbowl. But the owners could make the spaces more intimate and comfortable if they wanted to.

        In contrast, San Francisco has the same narrow deep lots and small houses, but the houses are in front, and many owners have an active vegetable garden or active play space in back, and many also have an active bushy, flowery garden in front.

        A single brownstone stair isn’t large enough for a house, but in aggregate a block or two of them is, including space in front and back. This forces people visiting the family who would have lived in the displaced house to walk further to it, or take a bus. In other words, it pushes everything further apart unnecessarily. And why are all those main floors raised so that they need a stairway. Is it to prevent floods from reaching the main floor? Is it to allow a half-daylight basement? Are those really so important that everybody must have them? Or are the stairs just a meaningless part of the style? You can of course have a front porch with no stairs, or with only one or two stairs.

      5. The stairs are also a challenge for disabled people. Including those in the family who might get disabled later.

    2. Floor level retail an icon of gentrification? Give me a break.

      You mention NYC. Have you ever been to the Lower East Side? Chinatown? Every building has floor level retail with apartments on top. Even Knickerbocker Village, which is quasi-public housing, has corner bodegas in it. I’d love to see you tell the NYC Chinese immigrant community that they don’t have any community commercial hubs and that they haven’t got “neighborhood flavor” because they haven’t got stoops.

      1. How dense would these commercial buildings be. A compact vertical building with several businesses would be good. But I’m afraid some companies would just build a one-story structure for one business. The CSV in Wallingford for instance. The community asked them to put one or more stories of housing on top but they wouldn’t. The result is a suburban-style one-story building in a neighborhood of increasingly multistory apartments. Fortunately they did the facade and setbacks well.

      2. Way to move the goalposts, A Joy. We’re talking about NYC here, which you’ve previously held up as “the right way” to do residential. Yeah, they have beautiful brownstones with stoops, but they also have ground floor retail in apartment buildings lining their main streets in residential areas. Often these things are in close proximity. See for example Park Slope.

        On the topic of gentrification, Chinatown/LES is quite possibly the last un-gentrified place in Manhattan. Your assertion that floor level retail is a harbinger of gentrification is categorically false. I invite you to take a walk down East Broadway or Mott Street sometime next time you’re in New York.

        Shopping malls are totally cancerous, even if they are urban, like friggin Bellevue Square.

  15. You know, A Joy, I really do owe you an apology. The neighborhood store-fronts I remember have long been getting evermore eclipsed by the ones neither of us like. Partly, family businesses usually last about a generation.

    Because young people want to run a friendly neighborhood grocery only slightly less than their parents want them to get stuck running one. All the nostalgia is in movies. Many if not most were an immigrant’s first beginning.

    Of a life that would above all let them send their children to college, and themselves to the suburbs. But equally often, the stores left because they couldn’t pay the new rents. Exactly what happened to their years’ long customers.

    Who, as customers tend to, had long started shopping a lot more at Target because it’s cheaper. I think best approach is to encourages shops, from fish to machining, that best serve the type of needs planned into the neighborhood. With plans subject to permanent change.

    Neighborhoods can’t, and shouldn’t be over planned. Everything alive is constantly changing. Past a certain point, in the name of History, resuscitation often becomes taxidermy.

    Sand-blasted bricks swiftly lose their charm when the cafe’s they enclose get ever more expensive than the most elegant restaurants in the richest part of their city in its glory days. Which was deliberately built to stay a long way from “Old wherever.”

    However, one thing helps with healthy continuity. Buildings with “Good Bones.” Meaning not only well-designed with long-lasting materials. But also the ability to handle the changing forms, and needs of many different generations of people and activity.

    Over the ages, Cathedral builders in Europe were really good like this. Maybe because all their builders knew their that rival religion had lately been showing off the new cannons God just gave them to to flatten THEIR enemies’ church.

    Did our Air Force completely level Montecasino, or just shake same stones loose that a thousand enemies had also predictably dislodged? But one positive thing about neighborhood business with late hours:

    Lots of eyes on the street who can also tell the police what a camera won’t see. Part of whose contents being what’s left of somebody’s brother, and who caused it or did it. And why.


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